Radovan Karadzic -- the former Bosnian Serb leader cum new age guru on trial for war crimes at The Hague -- dismissed on Tuesday all evidence of attempted genocide and ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims during the war in the former Yugoslavia as fabrications.
On the second day of opening statements in his trial on 11 counts of war crimes and genocide, Mr. Karadzic attempted to reframe and redefine massacres committed by Serb forces variously as simple acts of self defense or never having occurred. His version of events is at odds with almost every scholarly account of the war and the testimony of many fellow Serb defendants, dozens of whom have pled guilty over the course of 15 years of the United Nations war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia.
Karadzic said Bosnians in Sarajevo shelled their own city and shot their own civilians to create world sympathy and that they packed corpses of Bosnian Muslims into mass graves at Srebrenica as part of a conspiracy against Serbs. He characterized Western reporting of the war as a series of myths assisted by Bosnian “tricks,” and denied the existence of death camps that came to light in the first year of the war.
Karadzic, assisted by two private lawyers after four months of delay in one of the final major trials on the Bosnian war, adopted a defense strategy that some analysts say seeks to tap into current divides between the Islamic and Western worlds. He described the war as a “holy and just” attempt by Serbs to hold the line against a conspiracy by militant Muslims bent on recreating the Ottoman empire in the heart of Europe.
Sabra Kolenovic, a representative of the Mothers of Srebrenica, told Reuters that Karadzic “should be given the Nobel Prize for lying” in his opening statement.
On Monday Karadzic told Yugoslav tribunal judges that “the Serbs were the party that made concessions for the sake of preserving peace and they were never in favor of a war solution.” He said it was the conduct of Bosnian Muslims that “gave rise to our conduct."
The prosecution in the Karadzic trial, building on convictions and testimony from previous trials in the tribunal, is defining the war as a “criminal enterprise” led by Serb leaders in the former Yugoslavia, who between 1992 and 1998 attempted to create an ethnically pure “Greater Serbia” by forcing out non-Serbs from lands claimed in Belgrade to be historically Serb.
Karadzic’s defense hinges on the argument that Serbs were defending themselves and he implied that Serb actions were essentially pre-emptive. Speaking of Serb snipers that ringed Sarajevo and shot civilians young and old in what was a three year siege, the former president of the Repubic of Srpska and self-styled poet and psychiatrist told the court that "we were accused of firing indiscriminately at Sarajevo, but the targets were legitimate targets.”
Speaking of the Markale market massacre in February of 1994 attributed to Serb mortars hitting the crowded area of Sarajevo, Karadzic said the Bosnians "killed their own people."
James Swihart, a US State Department official and later ambassador, who was part of the European desk at the outbreak of the Bosnian conflict, argues that “I think Karadzic believes what he is saying...it's the war on terror...and for him, it is necessary to demonize, call them bad guys. It is despicable when he says it, but it is also being said in a simplistic ‘war on terror’ context today in the US and elsewhere that makes it seem plausible. The Bosnian Muslim identity was never very Islamic, but Karadzic doesn’t see it that way. He sees them as Turks that dominated the Balkans for 500 years.”
Bosnian Muslims are Slavs that converted to Islam during the Ottoman reign. Sarajevo is a city where Orthodox Christian and Protestant churches stand within blocks of the capital's main mosque and synagogue.
The Karadzic trial is the most watched at the tribunal since that of Serb president Slobodan Milosevic, who died at the Hague in 2006. Other than Mr. Milosevic and Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic, who is still at large, Karadzic is considered one of the principle progenitors of a conflict that resulted in 100,000 deaths and the displacement of Balkan peoples across Europe and the US.
Karadzic’s insistence that the “cunning strategy” of the Bosnians, who fought much of the one-sided war without the weapons that the Serbs took from former Yugoslav Army military installations, was designed to bring foreign powers into the Balkans – was an argument often used by Serb leaders at the height of a conflict.
Marshall Freeman Harris, a former US state department official who resigned his position during the Bosnian war over US policy designed to downplay the war’s aggressive character, said today that Karadzic’s statements “show him to be unchanged” from his earlier incarnation as the Bosnian Serb president.
“The nature of the conflict is that Serb nationalists tried to take the territory of others to create their own state, and were willing to kill and drive out Muslims to do so,” Mr. Harris said by phone. “That’s what happened and everything else is obfuscation or confusion. What Karadzic is saying is not only inaccurate, but reprehensible. He is in the dock because what he is saying is not true.”